A woman should be many things except what she herself desires to be, especially when the prospect of a better life for her involves greater autonomy, freedom, independence and confidence – all the characteristics that will make her ‘undesirable’ and ‘un-lady like’.
The manner in which we speak, dress and conduct ourselves is dictated by how others will perceive our words, appearance and demeanor.
If I speak up when I am being harassed, will I be reprimanded for misbehaving? If my sleeves don’t roll all the way down to my wrist, will my modesty be questioned? If I don’t make the roti round enough, will my husband kill me? Granted, the world is moving forward in reforming the attitudes that seek to control, demean and oppress women but unfortunately not at the speed it should be considering the magnitude of the problem.
We, in Pakistan, have an even longer road to travel as the idea that women are human beings – regardless of whether they are someone’s mothers, daughters, sisters or wives – is yet to take root. From the moment we are born, women in Pakistan, without even realizing take on responsibility for not just our families but also all of society.
Our family’s honour rests on us after all. And God forbid we dishonour our family; we don’t even have the right to live anymore. God forbid we decide when to have children, or to complete our education, or to not get married at all. As per the constitution and the laws of our country, these are our rights so then why are all of the above treated by society as punishable offences in practice?
In June this year, police in Sukkur arrested a man and his three nephews following the murder of Najma Shah, who was a victim of barbaric violence and torture at the hands of these men. Apart from the marks of violence on her body, both her eyes had also been gouged out. She was beaten to death with clubs and iron rods, among other weapons.
The preliminary investigation into Najma’s case found that her husband had, along with his relatives, decided to inflict this extreme violence upon her because he did not want to pay her Rs300,000, which was her Haq Meher, after she demanded a divorce because he had entered into a second marriage. For the record, it merits mention that while Rasool Shah didn’t want to pay Najma Rs300,000, he did pay his three nephews Rs100,000 each to torture and kill her.
Just one month prior to this incident, in May, a man killed his wife in Shalkanabad, Upper Kohistan because she had failed to serve him a hot meal. This murder took place in Ramazan, a month in which we were already fortunate enough to have Pakistan’s favourite religious scholar telling the nation that pandemics are caused by women’s immorality. And one month prior to this, in April, a man shot and killed his seven-year-old niece in Tehkal, Peshawar because he was angry about the noise the children were making.
Also in April, an eight-month pregnant woman was shot dead in Khairpur, Sindh by her brother over ‘honour’ because she had chosen to marry a man from a different caste, without her family’s approval. Yet, while going over all of these incidents, one cannot make sense of this blatant lie we are constantly fed: that women are equal citizens in Pakistan, with equal rights and equal protection of the law.
If we are to lose our “angelic light” and “virgin liberty” (to borrow from Wordsworth’s ‘Perfect Woman’), then we are bad women. If we make decisions about our lives and bodies ourselves, we are asking for too much. As a result, when we are beaten, degraded and murdered in cold blood, society may feel remorse after it determines whether we deserved what we got. And that, in a nutshell, is Pakistan’s problem with women.
That problem being that our society does not view women as equal human beings to men. Our rights and freedoms are contingent on the mercy and open-mindedness of the men in our families. Without our consent, from the second we come into this world, we bear the entire family and society’s weight of expectations on our barely-formed shoulders. Sometimes, our birth itself is a breach of that responsibility: we should have been born male.
Without accepting that Pakistan, as a society, hates women, we cannot move forward in preventing and punishing cases of discrimination and violence against women. The most recent trend right now on social media concerning violence against women was the Justice for Zahra hashtag. While her husband has been arrested, and while he may even be tried and convicted, that is not where justice will be done.
Our conception of justice has to change. It is not enough that men who engage in this violent behaviour be punished. The cost for women in Pakistan is their life. In addition to implementation of laws and enforcement of penalties, surely the recognition of the reality women face has to come right from the top. Our leaders talk about changing mindsets but forget that the responsibility to do so falls on them.
We can, as individuals, try and change our immediate surroundings or even certain aspects of the larger society around us but the actions required to change society’s mindset have to be employed at the state level, whether through dedicated campaigns or rights-based awareness-raising initiatives. What we have unfortunately seen in Pakistan is male-dominated political and social discourse, where sexism and misogyny are rampant. No political party is immune from criticism on this front.
Let us recall how former president Asif Ali Zardari publicly flirted with Sarah Palin, or how former prime minister Nawaz Sharif told the women at his rally that they were good women, unlike those who attended PTI rallies. Or let us go back even further and recall how former military dictator Musharraf claimed that rape victims allege rape to get citizenship abroad and money. And let us come right back to present day and recall the words of our prime minister who doesn’t seem to understand the concept of feminism, deeming it a “degradation of the role of mothers”.
These are the leaders of Pakistan. Take a long, hard look before the state tells us the problem is in society and not with the state. Yes, there is a problem in our society and that problem is reflected in our leaders as well. Till your own retrogressive, sexist and ignorant views on women change, why should we trust that society will reform? You are from this society and this society is you. The law may say one thing but when the top leadership of this country can’t even check its own misogyny, it is no wonder we are getting nowhere.
The writer is founding partner of Mazari-Hazir Advocates & Legal Consultants.
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